Orange Mound’s sports legacy is tied to Little Leagues
When Eddie Williams used to volunteer to coach Melrose High School’s football team, he could see the future on the other side of the field.
“Those little boys (Little League football players) would be out there playing on one end of Melrose stadium, and the football players would be on the other end,” said Williams, who said that all of the little boys playing looked forward to one day playing for Melrose.
But for some of those youths, that future was violently disrupted.
A bus carrying Orange Mound Youth Association football players from a championship game in Fort Worth, Texas, overturned in Benton, Ark., around 2:40 a.m. Monday. Forty-five adults and children were injured, and one child, 9year-old Kameron Johnson, was killed.
That tragedy shook Williams. It also shook Antonio Huntsman, who operates the Orange Mound Raiders Youth Sports and Mentoring Organization, a different group from the youth association, and Claudette Boyd, who organizes the annual Southern Heritage Classic Parade in Orange Mound.
The Little League players from Orange Mound, as well as those who come from throughout the city, are key to the life and the sports legacy of that historic community, they said.
“(The bus crash) impacted me greatly,” said Huntsman, who said that he was so upset by it that it took him a day to talk about it. “I actually sent two of my kids (in his youth organization) to the tournament, but they rode with their parents. “
“Orange Mound still is a mecca for sports,” Boyd said. “Tim Thompson (former Melrose football coach) had a feeder system where he started with the Little Leagues and taught them all the fundamentals of the game...
“That’s why in the 1990s, we had such a successful football program.”
‘They still come back to Orange Mound’
Yet one of the most remarkable aspects about Orange Mound Little League football is that although many of the youths live in other parts of Memphis - a trend that reflects population losses spurred by suburban flight and the drug trade - they still come back to play on its sports teams. To them, it’s still home. “Most of those boys’ parents grew up in Orange Mound,” Williams said. “Sure, some of them (parents) end up in Cordova, or Collierville, or wherever their money leads them, but they still come back to Orange Mound.”
That, in and of itself, is a reflection of the connection that Melrose and Orange Mound still has when it comes to sports, and the sports dreams that community continues to nurture.
Such nurturing is especially apparent when the Southern Heritage Classic – the yearly football rivalry between Tennessee State and Jackson State – comes to town, Boyd said.
“During the Classic, they’re out there, playing on the fields,” she said.
The details of that tragedy that left Kameron dead and many of his friends injured are still emerging.
But the sad irony here is that when these youths boarded that bus to represent Orange Mound in a championship tournament, they represented part of the lifeblood of a community that suburban flight almost drained it of years ago.
These youths carried the legacy of Melrose High, and the dreams of a resilient community that still holds them closely, and still frets about their lives and their futures. Futures that Williams hopes to see. “Whenever I see those little kids out there, I ask myself if I’m going to live long enough to see these kids play in college,” said Williams, who is 65.
“That way, I could say I watched them grow up.”
The bus that carried the football teams from Orange Mound that crashed outside Benton, Arkansas, is towed away from the scene of the accident on Monday afternoon, Dec. 3. BRAD VEST/THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL